Reader Question – Can you share some of your experiences in which inexperienced nonprofits did more harm than good?

Dear Alanna,

I too am starting up a very small nonprofit, and I admit that I am not comfortable with all of the issues you raised in your blog on November 8th.

Can you share some of your experiences in which inexperienced nonprofits did more harm than good?


Dear DR,

Here are four ways that a small (or large) NGO can unintentionally do harm to the community it’s trying to serve.

1) You can waste the time and effort of a community by initiating projects which have little chance of success. It’s hard to identify a good project for a small community. Community buy-in is no guarantee of success; possessing deep local knowledge doesn’t make a person omniscient. Projects that have little chance of success include vocational training in sewing and handicrafts, beekeeping, and raising chickens. If you waste a year of the community’s time on a broiler chicken project that never makes a profit, that’s a year of time and effort which could have gone to real income generation or looking after children.

2) You can leave communities convinced that they need outsiders to solve their problems. If you raise $3000 for a backhoe to clear irrigation ditches, then what happens next time the ditches silt up? The farmers’ cooperative will never realize they could have cleared it with hand shovels, or raised the money by charging a membership fee.

3) You can damage beneficial community structures, or solidify harmful structures. Your choice of community intermediary elevates that person or group, by putting them in control (real or perceived control) of valuable assets. If you work with existing power structures, you can support and entrench inequalities, such as sexism or racism, which are already present. If you chose partners who are not part of the current elite, you can destabilize delicate community balances, and erode resilience.

4) You can construct a building and then not provide funds for maintenance or staffing. A school needs a teacher. A clinic needs a doctor or nurse. All buildings need upkeep – painting and repairs at the very least. A building with not funds for maintenance is a drain on community resources in perpetuity, or an eyesore.

I recommend reading Michael Maren’s book The Road to Hell; it has its flaws but it is very sincere and brings up a lot to think about.



Readers – if anyone has case studies or examples, please comment.

Edited to add – 1) Check out the fascinating examples in the comments and 2) Owen has two more ways an incompetent NGO can hurt the population it is trying to help.

(Photo Credit: Copyright Glenna Gordon)
She gave it to me as an example of aid with unintended consequences.